Places change depending on the speed you move through them. Neighbourhoods look different, people look different, even I look different.
I have been biking around Toronto since I moved downtown 10 years ago. I have never been hit by a car or a door. I have almost hit an astounding number of jaywalkers. I have fallen because of streetcar tracks, rain, potholes, construction rubble, World Cup celebrations, the marijuana march and escaped with only scrapes. I have popped numerous tires, usually when already late for something. Still, I’m not complaining.
Biking is a great gender-neutral activity and absolutely the best way to get around. I feel vulnerable jogging, and unfortunately, vulnerable equals feeling more like the woman than the boy that I am.
Walking is okay, but it just takes so long to get anywhere and invites so much damn introspection. Transit takes away my lunch money and then some. Driving is the most expensive and, actually, the slowest way to move downtown (and often requires this odd little maneuvre called parallel parking, which I can’t do to save my life).
I would say that biking requires the most amount of attention and focus, as things come at you from left and right, in front and behind (just like a bad porno), and you always end up thinking when you get to where you’re going, “Wow, I could have died right there.” It is actually very affirming. Someone has decided I should be here another day.
I feel strong on my bike, incognito under my helmet. I am aggressive, nimble and fast on a bike — three words I generally would not use to describe myself, although my partner occasionally might. I anticipate disaster on a bike without experiencing the useless anxiety that often accompanies that in the rest of my life. I react with efficiency and change pace on a dime and feel clear-headed because life on a bike is so simple — avoid getting hit, avoid hitting anything and avoid stopping at all costs.
My first downtown bike was a fat orange Jeep with a crossdressing Strawberry Shortcake doll straddling the bar. I read that if you personalize something, it is less likely to be stolen. I still factor that in every time I buy something I can’t afford to lose, although I increasingly feel it’s a myth. The Jeep was swiped from in front of the Bob Abate Community Centre. I was left with the front wheel as a memento — but I wish they had left the doll instead. I was a bit attached to her fluorescent green pigtails.
There were a string of loaner bikes after that. Whenever I first get on a loaner bike, I think about all that crotch friction and buy a new seat. But it’s nice to consider the invisible mileage of an old bike, all the places it has been, all the storms it has weathered, all those missions, all those crotches. Ew.
Sometimes my bike is like a suit of armour, getting me home late at night when the streets are deserted, and the shadows cast by the streetlights bring to mind all the Stephen King I’ve ever read and all the Dateline I’ve ever watched. I bike past train tracks and bridges and cemeteries and don’t stop long enough to think about what they might mean. I out-pedal drunk guys saying rude things and neatly avoid confrontations with road- raging drivers who don’t appreciate what I am doing for the environment.
I have dirt and grease on my hands most days from removing the front wheel of my bike when I park it, to make it less convenient for thieves. Dirty hands make me feel industrious and useful. Walking around with my helmet on, chin strap undone, pant legs rolled up, usually a scrape on one shin or the other, actually makes me feel somewhat attractive.
There is a lovely element of independence in biking, weaving in and out of traffic, running lights, passing people, going the wrong way down a one-way street, jumping up on the grass or the sidewalk whenever you need to. It’s really lovely.
When I bike through the Village, it is never in a straight line. I don’t feel motorists sizing me up, trying to figure out if I am a boy or a girl. When I’m in a hurry, the strip is a blur of colour and sound. When I’m taking my time, it’s like a movie set, over-animated and dramatic, full of styles and personalities and, usually, happiness.
When I walk through the Village, though, I can’t help but see glimpses of depression and addictions and the damage our community reflects in unexpected ways — the disproportionate number of dogs, cigarette butts, Hero burgers.
Every so often I think it’s okay to want to see things on the surface, to want things to be prettier and easier, and to just ride on through.